In terms of genre these three films are very different: Lincoln is a historical drama, Waste Land is a documentary, and Traitor is a spy thriller set in the international world of terrorism. In terms of craft, all three are well made films, telling very different stories in ways that show how cinema is able to imaginatively sweep us into worlds unlike our everyday experience. And all three present us with realities that rightly need careful reflection, and if you are a Christian, some unhurried prayer.
Lincoln (2012) is, of course, the story of Abraham Lincoln, set during his presidency as the Civil War rages and he seeks to lead the Congress and the nation in forever banning slavery through the passage of a Constitutional amendment. Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Lincoln and Sally Field, who plays his wife, seem to lose themselves in their roles in powerful performances on the screen. One proof the film is great cinema are several scenes in which little happens. Film depends on action, but in these instances we watch people watching a still Lincoln, deep in thought as he faces a crucial decision. Somehow Day-Lewis fills the stillness with tension, so that as the moments slide by we are not bored but filled with anticipation of what comes next. Based in large part on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, historian Doris Kearns Goodwins’ magisterial study, Lincoln reveals the man and the period as heroic yet far from perfect.
Waste Land (2010) documents a multi-year project in the life and career of Brazilian artist Vik Muniz. Having achieved success in New York City, Muniz decides to return to Brazil and make art in collaboration with the garbage pickers in Jardim Gramacho, the largest landfill of the world just outside Rio de Janeiro. The pickers are among the forgotten people of the world, doing a job that is as dangerous as it is unseemly. They dodge trucks dumping dripping, rotting garbage from the city to pick out scraps of recyclable matter to sell for pennies in an attempt to make a living. The film does a good job of revealing Muniz’s conception of the art slowly, so we see it come together in an act of creativity that unfolds before us as it does within the lives of the pickers he befriends. Waste Land reminds us of the humanity of all people even those on the far margins of society, the meaningfulness of creativity even in the midst of filth and decay, and the dignity of all work even in jobs that are despised by everyone except those who have no other choice.
Traitor (2008) takes us into the world of international terror. Don Cheadle plays Samir Horn, a CIA agent so deep undercover that the FBI has formed a team with the express purpose of tracking and eliminating him as a terrorist threat. Horn is a Muslim, a skilled maker of bombs who is slowly gaining the respect of a terrorist cell intent on striking a significant blow in the heartland of America. The story unfolds naturally, as we follow Horn living in the shadows of a fanatical world and as the FBI team uncovers his tracks, so not until the end can we be certain who are the good guys—or whether any fully good guys even exist. To win acceptance Horn must make and detonate bombs, and in the process innocent people perish. It is a price that must be paid if Horn is to win acceptance and work his way up the ladder among the various terrorist cells to those calling the shots at the top.
Three remarkable and remarkably different films, yet each truthful in the stories they tell about the human condition. And so they pose questions worth careful reflection and prayer.
Lincoln. In 2013, as in 1865, America is deeply divided and increasingly polarized politically. Is there on the horizon stateswomen and statesmen who can be principled leaders to help achieve the common good? Are we as Christians, by our rhetoric and involvement in the public square, adding to the division and polarization or are we fulfilling our God’s given call to be agents of reconciliation in a broken world?
Waste Land. Who are the forgotten people that inhabit the margins of our world? Do we know the names of the janitors, dishwashers, or clerks that work in the background of our lives, and are there small ways in which we can show them the dignity they deserve?
Traitor. Can we provide a safe place to discuss the emotionally charged and impossibly complex ethical issues that attach to America’s war on terror? Are we clear on the difference between seeking justice and desiring vengeance? Are we supportive of the people—soldiers, spies, or other agents of government—that must inflict harm or perhaps do what they believe to be evil in order for good to prevail?
Lincoln, Waste Land, and Traitor—I enjoyed them as movies but even more because each, in its own way, reminded me of what it means to be human in a fallen world.